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Futile Research or Stealthy Censorship?

By Ian Musgrave

It's hard to see the Coalition's plans to weed out "futile" research as anything other than a cynical attempt to defund topics the Coalition doesn’t like.

It hasn’t been a very inspiring election from the point of view of research. Research hasn’t really featured at all. That slightly changed today with a front page article in the Advertiser (also in The Daily Telegraph), under the title of “Abbot’s Waste Disposal”. The article claimed a Coalition government would target “futile” research projects.

Yes, that’s a good idea. We could set up a committee of experts to examine all grants in detail, and get them checked by external experts as well, before deciding on who to give money too.

Oh wait a second, we do that already, it’s called the Australian Research Council.

Now, I’ve been both an applicant and a reviewer of ARC grants, so I can tell you personally that the grant process is no cake run. The competition is fierce and the amount of grant money available is limited. The review process is exhaustive and more than a little harrowing. Only around 20% of all grants get funded, and you have to be exceptionally good for your grant to get up.

Okay, sometimes the system screws up and merely extremely good proposals are funded.

So given that the ARC has already extensively vetted any grant proposal before it’s funded (and you have to go through so many hoops, including describing what the proposed payoff to Australian society in general will be), what is the Coalition proposal?

Why, having a special team under the Commission of Audit to re-prioritise the funding for the ARC.

Great, now we have a bunch of auditors telling researchers what their priorities should be, that’s going to work out just fine. Not to mention the cost of having this team doing the re-prioritising. Anyone willing to bet that the amount of money saved by shuffling around grants with funny names that politicians don’t understand will be more than gobbled up by the Commission of Audit team?

Oh, and the funds clawed back from these “wasteful” projects to will be put into “new medical research programs for dementia, diabetes and tropical disease”. Yeah, except that isn’t the ARC’s role at all, that’s a completely different funding body, the NH&MRC.

I suppose it would be too much to expect that the Coalition would actually understand how research is funded in Australia.

This is hard to see as anything other a cynical attempt to defund topics the coalition doesn’t like. The ARC funds a wide range of topics from basic science to humanities and arts (the latter form a small portion of the overall funding). The brunt of the Coalitions ire is focused on the humanities and arts sector, especially those that engage with climate change and sexuality. “Who needs research into philosophy”* they seem to say. Why not take the decisions from the researchers and focus research on something more useful.

We know after all that government has such a such good track record of choosing research winners that lead to useful things. The CSIRO developed the first computer with a hard wired square root function, but the government of the day directed it to focus on cloud seeding instead.

That worked out so well.

Researchers, especially researchers in humanities and arts, are easy targets. It’s easy to point and laugh at the funny titles, rather than try and understand what is being achieved.

You just have to look at the Coalitions poster child for “futile” research; Spatial Dialogues: Public Art and Climate Change. This was a joint project funded by the ARC and industry partners Grocon and Fairfax media. Must have been pretty futile to convince these people to come on board (construction giant Grocon is hardly a fluffy bunny tree-hugger organisation). To quote David Hoath, Chief Operating Officer for Fairfax Media’s Melbourne publishing division:

“With a strong editorial stance on sustainability and environment generally and water conservation specifically, the Spatial Dialogues project is particularly relevant at this time”

Yeah, So much for “futile” research.

See also the less sarcastic response from Science and Technology Australia.

*One of my best friends is a philosopher, and I actually am a coauthor on a paper in a philosophy journal.

This article was originally published at The Conversation.